Sidney Poitier did not grow up understanding what it meant to be black in America. It only really hit him when he was sent from Nassau to Miami to live with his uncle as a teenager. It was ugly, Jim Crow era ugly.
“I had to think twice or three times about every step I took. I was in a culture that denied my very existence.” (Sidney Poitier)
This rude awakening ultimately made Poitier the man he became.
“Since I couldn’t actuate the things that I wanted to do, the only weapon I had was to say no.”
Ultimately, he became a man who advanced the depiction of black actors in American cinema and pushed audiences to face American racial tensions head on.
“I chose to use my work as a reflection of my values.” (Sidney Poitier)
Poitier constantly expressed gratitude to his hard-working Bahamian parents who, despite their extremely limited means, taught him that he was someone.
Sidney Poitier was the first black man to earn an Oscar with his best actor award for “Lilies of the Field”, beating out Albert Finney (“Tom Jones”), Richard Harris (“This Sporting Life”), Rex Harrison (“Cleopatra”) and Paul Newman (“Hud”). Accepting the award from Anne Bancroft, he aptly stated: “It is a long journey to this moment”.
Interestingly, the first black person to win an Oscar was a woman: Hattie McDaniel. She accepted her 1940 best supporting actor trophy in a segregated black hotel. McDaniel played head slave Mammy in the Civil War epic, “Gone with the Wind”. With no disrespect to Ms. McDaniel, Poitier would have said “no” to such a role.
My two favorite Poitier films are, hands down, “In the Heat of the Night” and “To Sir with Love”.
“In the Heat of the Night” is a 1967 mystery drama directed by accomplished Canadian Norman Jewison. Based on a novel by John Ball, the film tells the story of Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective from Philadelphia who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small Mississippi town. Racial tensions are rife throughout the film, and beautifully maneuvered by Poitier.
“Virgil, that’s a funny name for a nigger boy that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call ya up there?” (white bigot Sheriff Gillespie played by Rod Steiger)
“They call me Mr. Tibbs.” (black police officer Virgil Tibbs played by Sidney Poitier)
The film’s music, composed and conducted by Quincy Jones, with a title track sung by Ray Charles, brilliantly captures the deep south.
“To Sir with Love” is another of the trio of Poitier films that were released in 1967 - a drama that deals with social and racial issues in an inner-city high school. James Clavell (“The Fly”, “The Great Escape”, “Shogun”) directed the film and also wrote the screenplay based on E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel. The Scottish singer Lulu performed in the film; its theme song became the best-selling single in the United States that year.
My favorite scene is the graduation dance with Judy Geeson (playing Pamela Dare), during which Poitier proves that he is indeed someone. And that his disadvantaged students are each also someone.
Rounding out the 1967 Poitier trio is the interracial film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, a movie directed by Stanley Kramer (“The Defiant Ones”, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, “Judgment at Nuremberg”, “The Caine Mutiny”) starring Spencer Tracy (in his final role) and Katharine Hepburn, as Poitier’s future white-skinned in-laws.
“Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” (Sidney Poitier as John Prentice)
It has been a long time since Sidney Poitier read The Amsterdam News looking for a job as a dishwasher … and came across a help wanted ad for actors. With less than 2 years of formal education and absolutely no acting skills, he was physically thrown out the theater door after trying to read a few lines from a script and told to “go get yourself a job as a dishwasher”. Without knowing that Poitier was, indeed, a dishwasher, this preconceived notion of his complete lack of worth deeply offended and infuriated Sidney. At that moment, he decided to prove that he could be an actor, that the man who threw him out the door was wrong.
Sidney Poitier succumbed to old age (94) in January 2022. It’s hard to believe that this charismatic, charming, 6 ft. 2.5 in. debonair water boy, warehouse worker, delivery person, dishwasher, civil rights activist, actor, director, diplomat (Ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan and UNESCO), knight and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is gone.
“Sidney” is a documentary film about the path he carved out for the betterment of everyone. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, she has put all of her weight behind this important film, starring Morgan Freeman, Halle Barry, Denzel Washington, James Baldwin, Paul Newman, Diahann Carroll and Barbra Streisand, among others. It is an important lesson in history, a moment in time and a man whose accomplishments we must never forget.
The film will be released on Apple TV+ on September 23rd.
“I am the me I chose to be.” (Sidney Poitier)
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